This is my inaugural post on the Caine Prize for African Writing (my introductory post here). I’ll be blogging each of the five short stories that were short-listed on the five Fridays between now and the announcement of the winner on July 11, along with a slate of other bloggers (so far: The Oncoming Hope, Backslash Scott, Sky, Soil, and Everything in Between, The Mumpsimus, Method to the Madness, Africa is a Country, The Reading Life). And feel free to join us!
A line like “because her grandfather made her pregnant” is meant to hit us like a ton of bricks, and I’m pretty sure it does. Buried in the middle of the third paragraph, it comes after the point where we’ve started to find our narrative bearings — we’ve learned that the story is about a group of children, one of which is the impregnated Chipo — but before the scene has fully taken shape, which is to say, before anything has really happened in it. It’s not so much an event, in other words, but just part of the back-story and background, part of the fabric of the story’s normal out of which or against which, presumably, the story’s events will eventually take place.
For this reason, it is this very normality that is meant to strike us, the very casual way it gets mentioned only to explain why Chipo is no longer a fast runner. The fact that she was impregnated by her grandfather is not shown to us as even a particularly notable thing, in and of itself, and this is the real horror, its casual normality: that a ten year old child being impregnated by her grandfather is presented as normal is the thing that is meant to stand out, the deeply abnormal horror of its normality.
That can be its only function, really, because nothing will actually come of that moment. It is mentioned repeatedly, and the story will return to the image of her “soccer ball” belly, again and again, but no subsequent event in the story will particularly depend on it, or develop out of it. It is the main detail that stood out in my mind in reading the story, but it also could have been omitted without fundamentally changing what happens in the story, which is simply this: a group of children leave the very poor part of town where they leave, go to a rich section of town, steal guavas, briefly interact with a well-off London born lady who takes their picture, and return (and when they return, they take the shoes off the body of a woman who hanged herself because they can sell the shoes for money to buy food).
“Hitting Budapest” not a sunny story, to be sure, but my point would be that it’s almost not even a story at all. So little happens in it — events which are colorful, but not eventful — that the most memorable thing about the story is actually a “non-story” detail (in that it does not stem from or produce any particular action or events in the narrative). This is just a day in the life; not the day when Chipo was raped, or the day she gives birth, but just one of the days in the middle, where a ten-year old’s pregnancy is just a part of everyday normality. Which is to say, this is not a story in which we are encouraged to watch events, but in which we are shown a spectacle of non-events, the spectacle of nothing really happening. Nothing is really at stake in the story, because it is precisely the point that — in the “normal” life of these children — there is nothing much to be gained, nothing much to be lost. What happens is that nothing happens. And when they go to “Budapest,” what we are really seeing is the impossibility of their ever going to the place it represents, a place where they can be real people, as the narrator puts it (“if I lived in Budapest I would wash my whole body every day and comb my hair nicely to show I was a real person living in a real place”).
I should admit that I didn’t really love this story. I feel like I’ve read it before. If you were so inclined, in fact, the thing you could say about it would be that it traffics in the familiar genre of Africa-poverty-pornography, by which I would mean that its “story” is only an obligatory excuse for the parade of affect-inducing spectacles which are the story’s real reason for existing. Rather than building a character through back-story, you could say, the purpose of “Chipo” and her fellows is only to dramatize a particular sociological narrative about poverty, to put into view a picture of what you might call a collapsed mode of social reproduction. You could say it’s the same parable of unsocialized children and failing family networks that populated the Moynihan Report (“Getting out of Paradise is not so hard since the mothers are busy with hair and talk. They just glance at us when we file past and then look away. We don’t have to worry about the men under the jacaranda either since their eyes never lift from the draughts”). And then, having shown us all this social pathology, nothing will come of it; having shown herself to be pregnant, Chipo’s function in the story has pretty much been exhausted. We are to watch what happens, empathize/recoil, and perhaps moralize/despair, and then we move on.
Such a criticism wouldn’t exactly be wrong, I think — and this is why I didn’t love the story — but all it does is give us permission to dismiss the story (and the genre of African writing it represents), rather than understand it better. Where does such writing come from? Why do people write it?
I think it’s worth calling it a genre, in fact, to emphasize that it has a range of versions of varying quality. At the risk of over-generalizing, I would even posit a general shift in how African writers have tended to use children-stories since around the 1980’s: fewer bildungsromans and more of what I would call the “drama of unsocialization,” stories like this one, where political dysfunction produces the social dysfunction of isolated children running wild. It’s not a uniform shift, of course, but it really is noticeable: in the 1960’s and 70’s, a whole lot of African writers wrote novels and memoirs about children growing up, in part because the bildungsroman form — I would hazard to assert — spoke to a particular narrative about modernization that you can also find in a lot of public discourse of the era. African nations, too, were said to be “growing up,” and the ambiguous adventures of children being socialized into the broader society spoke to the ambiguous adventure of decolonization. Different writers still had different ambitions/agendas for what they used their bildungsromans to say, of course, but I think it would be fair to say that so many of them adopted the form because it allowed them to give their particular answer to a question they all took to have in common. Nowadays (and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy might be a good place to mark the shift, if we had to) the more common generic form is the story of children left behind by their society, either running wild in perverse and monstrous ways (as in the child soldier narrative, in particular) or festering in horrible ignorance and social pathology. The worst of that genre, in my humble opinion, would be Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, but most of the sins I would ascribe to that book are things like its minstrely faux-naif language and its shallow luridness for the sake of luridness, not so much the genre itself. So then, the question becomes: is this story of that ilk?
For the prosecution, I would give you Ikhide Ikheloa, who not only condemns the “lazy, predictable stories that made the [Caine] 2011 shortlist” (what he calls “a riot of exhausted clichés…huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty,” in which “[t]he monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader”) diagnoses the problem as selling out to the West:
“The problem now is that many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize. They are viewing Africa through a very narrow prism, all in a bid to win the Caine Prize.”
He is accusing them, in short, of the How to Write About Africa syndrome. I’m not sure I want to say that he’s wrong, yet, but I’m first of all not that interested in banning all stories that contain “huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty” from the canon of Real African Writing, as the logic of his piece sort of pushes us towards. And while I, personally, am much more interested in stories from Africa that don’t dwell on lurid poverty spectacles — which is why, subjectively, this story didn’t really catch me — it’s not like slums and poverty and social dysfunction are a “non-African” subject. As deeply undesirable elements of reality, they cannot be wished away, however obscene it may be to commodify it.
Anyway, to return to where I started, this would be my case for what is interesting about this story. If we compare “Hitting Budapest” to the story that won the 2009 Caine Prize — EC Osondu’s “Waiting” — we notice a distinctly different narrative emphasis: it is set in space rather than time. And there is a point to this. While “Waiting” is similarly full of unsocialized children trying to escape from a similarly every-day reality of brutal normality, that story (in which, also, nothing really happens) takes place in a refugee camp, a place which is (at least nominally) meant to be only a temporary place of refuge during a time of emergency. But because “Waiting” is all about time (as in the title, and in the temporal setting of “wartime emergency”) it not only has an extremely vague sense of geographical setting, but the horizon of future possibility which is visible to its narrator is exclusively one of deliverance by adoption. The only possible future will be when an American comes to the refugee camp and adopts him.
“Hitting Budapest,” by contrast, not only emphasizes the cruel normality of an inegalitarian geography — in detail — but it thereby shows us how a state of emergency can be built into the permanent spaces of urban separation. There is something particularly cruel, in fact, about the way the children can so easily leave “Paradise” (the ironically named slum they live in) and go to “Budapest” (whose name also signals a kind of exotic worldiness ironic for a place so close), and that they can so easily interact with “the other half,” and that still, none of it matters. As when they chat with the lady with the camera — who expects their attention to be on her Marvelous Piece Of Technology, missing that they are really focused on the unnamed piece of food she is eating (and throws away, to their anger) — again, the fact that nothing really comes of this exchange is the interesting and cutting thing. They shout at her, she is puzzled, and then they all return to their normal places: she goes back in her house, they go back to the “shanties.” The brutality of normality is not interrupted or troubled by their visit; it is made of sterner stuff than that. So she learns nothing. They learn nothing. We learn nothing, in fact. Time changes nothing, when the problem is space.
Blog-versation on “Hitting Budapest” (look for updates):